Why spelling is hard – but also hard to change

In Lingthusiasm Episode 33 Lauren Gawne and Gretchen McCulloch discuss spelling.

Gretchen: I think of spelling systems across languages as kind of like living in a house. When you first move into a house, you unpack everything and you hopefully say, “Okay. I’m gonna be organised this time.” And you say, “This is where everything’s gonna go.” But the longer you’ve lived in a house, the more random boxes of stuff in the attic you have.

Lauren: English has lived in the house of the Latin alphabet for a very long time.

You can listen to their discussion or read it.


Usage tips

Did you know that “winter denotes a season of the year, but connotes cold weather”?

If not, then perhaps you should consult the Usage section of the Oxford Dictionaries website. It has numerous tips on word choices. For example:

Other sections include grammar, punctuation and spelling.


Radiotelephony alphabet

The ICAO Radiotelephony Alphabet (aka NATO Phonetic Alphabet) is a spelling alphabet used to say letters aloud on the radio or telephone. It is used internationally by airlines, armed forces, the police, etc.

  1. Alfa
  2. Bravo
  3. Charlie
  4. Delta
  5. Echo
  6. Foxtrot
  7. Golf
  8. Hotel
  9. India
  10. Juliett
  11. Kilo
  12. Lima
  13. Mike
  14. November
  15. Oscar
  16. Papa
  17. Quebec
  18. Romeo
  19. Sierra
  20. Tango
  21. Uniform
  22. Victor
  23. Whiskey
  24. X-ray
  25. Yankee
  26. Zulu

It can also be used by international students when (for example) spelling their names. So, if your family name is Zhang, you would say Zulu Hotel Alfa November Golf.

Picture from NATO:


How to spell compounds

Compounds are words formed from two (or more) words. For example, black + board = blackboard.

They can be spelled in three ways:

  1. as a single word: flowerpot
  2. as two words: flower pot
  3. with a hyphen: flower-pot

So which one should you choose? A linguist has devised a rule which she says works for 75% of words:

  • Compound verbs, adjectives and adverbs – use a hyphen (blow-dry, world-famous, well-nigh)
  • Compound nouns:
    • 3+ syllables – use a space (bathing suit)
    • 2 syllables:
      • second part has 2 letters – use a hyphen (make-up)
      • second part has 3+ letters – as a single word (coastline).

You can read more on her website.

  My even simpler rule: if you’re not sure, write it as a single word: blowdry, worldfamous, wellnigh, bathingsuit and makeup. Even if it’s wrong, it looks cuttingedge.



Question: Is there a B&Q in Norwich?

No, there’s an N, an O, an R, a W, an I, a C and an H.